In Israel’s southern city of Sderot, dozens of at-risk youth enjoyed a safe and enriching summer at the Ben Gurion Youth Club.
“Meir Panim recognizes that in order to stem the tide of dysfunction and poverty in Israel, we need to not only provide meals on a daily basis to those without food but we also must offer quality educational and recreational programming for Israeli youth while keeping them safe,” shared Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim.
“To that end, an all-encompassing summer program was provided and we are proud of the results.”
Following over a decade of nearly constant rocket fire from Gaza, many of Sderot’s teens suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, the city is known for its influx of immigrants and lower socioeconomic population. “The combination of living under incredibly dangerous circumstances for so long as well as the cultural challenges immigrants face makes earning a proper living here very difficult,” explained Sternbuch.
The Ben Gurion Youth Club held both day and evening activities all summer. Groups were run by a social leader, a scholarship student and three Israeli soldiers. “It is important for these youths to have positive role models who are just a little older than they are,” said Daniel Berkeley, manager of the Sderot Youth Department. “These are great teens and we are happy to build them up as much as possible to succeed in school, in the army and in life.”
Many Sderot youth do not consider a higher education or joining the Israeli army a priority. In their country of origin, families often made a living through farming. The Ben Gurion Youth Club strives to find a healthy balance between caring and discipline in order to teach the children the importance of acclimating to Israeli life, where army service is considered one of the best ways to have a successful future in the country.
The summer program included recreation, enrichment programs, challenging activities and discipline. Game shows were played, cooking was taught, shows were performed and karaoke was sung. A t-shirt painting activity, where children were given spray paint and a shirt to decorate, helped children express their emotions through their creations.
Trips were taken to play paintball, cool off at a water park, and watch soccer tournaments. Through outdoor training activities, teamwork and good sportsmanship were developed.
The youth created “Cafe Kasdo,” a unique activity where the club is turned into a social coffee shop. Teens operate the cafe, create the menu, bake, cook, and host patrons. Group activities are encouraged as are deep discussions which require participants to think honestly about important topics.
The club not only gives to the youth but also encourages them to give back. Over the course of the summer, club members volunteered to work with neighborhood children. Two large events were run by club teens who were responsible for operating stands and leading activities.
The summer came to an end with club members creating a community garden which they maintain throughout the year. The teens worked the soil, built flower beds, and planted flowers and vegetables that will be harvested and served at the club during the school year. “The importance of promoting environmental values, sustainability, and social interactions between the participants should not be underestimated,” noted Berkeley.
A special “end of summer ceremony” was held on September 11. Famous Israeli composer and folk/rock musician Miki Gavrielov held a performance at the club in order to better acquaint himself with the work of Meir Panim.
“The children were visibly touched by Gavrielov’s visit,” noted Sternbuch. “He sang with the children around a bonfire, baked pita bread and even encouraged the crowd to break into a traditional Caucasian dance from the Caucuses, where a large number of children originate. Everyone was so proud at how these children hosted such a special guest.”
The Ben Gurion Youth Club operates all year long to give children a safe and loving home away from home. Especially during the summer, which can be a particularly dangerous time for wandering the streets, the club provides youth with a place to pass their free hours with helpful guidance, warmth, and support.